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Sunday, March 3, 2024

Round table: Bringing tourists and guests to North Carolina

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••• SPONSORED SECTION •••

North Carolina set a record for visitor spending with $33.3 billion in 2022, a 15.2% increase according to
the Department of Commerce. Growth in direct tourism employment was more evenly distributed among rural and urban counties with more than a quarter seeing double-digit increases. Still, the tourism and hospitality industry faces challenges to continue that growth. Leaders from across the state recently gathered to discuss tourism and hospitality’s growth and where it’s headed in the future.

 


The discussion was sponsored by:
• Greenville-Pitt Convention & Visitors Bureau
• Halifax County Convention & Visitors Bureau
• Convention & Visitors Bureau for the Pinehurst, Southern Pines, Aberdeen Area
• Richmond County Tourism Development Authority
• Mount Airy Tourism Development Authority
• Visit Winston-Salem
Chris Roush, executive editor of Business North Carolina, moderated the discussion. It was edited for brevity and clarity.


 

PLEASE INTRODUCE YOURSELVES AND TELL ME ONE ISSUE IN TOURISM
RIGHT NOW.

ROBERTS: I’m Jessica Roberts, executive director of the Mount Airy Tourism Development Authority. And one of our biggest challenges is finding a workforce that can be available to work in several of our different employers.

WERZ: I’m Phil Werz, president and CEO of the Pinehurst, Southern Pines, Aberdeen Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. I would agree with Jessica that workforce development and affordable housing is a big deal. In fact, at Pinehurst resort, they’re going to take into consideration lodging for some of their workers. It is a big factor not just for the resort, but for tourism in general, in Moore County. 

LAMBETH: My name is Meghann Lambeth, and I am the executive director of Richmond County Tourism next door to Moore County. And I agree with both of their statements, I feel like those are applicable in Richmond  County. Also we have limited lodging. For some weekend events, it’s sufficient for what we have going on. But when we have larger national events, whether most of them are racing related, some kind of competitive sports, we don’t have anywhere near what we need. So that’s a big issue for us. 

TUTTELL: And I’m Wit Tuttell, executive director of Visit NC. I think one of our biggest issues is  balancing the needs of rural areas and urban areas and spreading out visitation so that everyone’s  getting as much as they need, but not too much. 

MINGES: I’m Lynn Minges with the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, and I would echo what several of my colleagues have said about the workforce. 

MEDLIN: I’m Lori Medlin with the Halifax County Convention and Visitors Bureau. So we’re on the I-95 corridor, just as you enter North Carolina from Virginia, and our hotels and restaurants are telling us they’re basically fully staffed. But what they’ve done, especially our restaurants, is cut back on days of service. No one’s open on Mondays. You know, a lot of people aren’t open for lunch until maybe Thursday. So getting everybody up to full speed is a challenge for us. 

SCHMIDT: And I’m Andrew Schmidt, president and CEO of Visit Greenville, NC. Obviously, I think I  would echo what our colleagues also said, but I think one thing that’s affecting us is our growth.  We have a lot of growing going on at the same time and a lot of the same areas. So communicating to our visitors, what roads might be
closed this particular week while this hotel is going up or what detours might be available for certain events has been challenging for us over the last few months. 

DO YOU STILL FEEL THAT YOU’RE RECOVERING FROM COVID? IS THERE STILL A COVID AFTEREFFECT THAT  IS IMPACTING YOUR COMMUNITIES?

ROBERTS: I think us being in a rural community, we weren’t really that heavily impacted about the pandemic. We fared very well. And being in a location that has lots of outdoor recreation and wineries. It  hasn’t really impacted us. We have surpassed our 2019 numbers.

WERZ: For golf, it was probably the best thing that ever happened. It was a tragedy as well. But it really impacted the golf industry. It’s an absolute boom, and the demand for golf now is through the roof. And now Gen Z is getting more involved. Golf is becoming more of a lifestyle kind of thing. So with COVID, we were impacted for maybe three or four months. But after that golf has taken off, and we haven’t looked back. 

MINGES: I think we’re still feeling a whole lot of impact, not necessarily from COVID. The industry has changed, people have changed, workers have changed, priorities have changed. During COVID, we displaced, in the hospitality industry, about  half of our workforce. So over the last two years, we’ve had to hire 100,000 people a year to build back. Working to onboard them and train them has been a challenge. We saw mass numbers of retirees, and so that whole population left the workforce, many of them earlier than we had anticipated. I think our industry has, in a big way, embraced technology because they had to during COVID. They had to shift the way they do business. But in no way has it filled the void of workers. We still need more workers than we needed before COVID. 

TUTTELL: What fascinates me is there were so many changes that came with the pandemic. And we didn’t know which ones were permanent changes and which ones were temporary. It’s been like a lot of people said Zoom meetings are going to take 50% of the meetings. But we’ve seen in urban areas this year, and last year, meetings have come back. But work from home is still around. Nobody’s in the office. So therefore, if you’re a restaurant, why would you be open for lunch on a Monday or Friday? And that’s a challenge to trying to do business. 

SCHMIDT: One of the good things that happened with COVID is people had to go outside. They learned that they loved camping, or they took up golf. Being in eastern North Carolina, we have a lot of outdoor assets, and they are being utilized to the point where sometimes there’s not enough space for everybody, especially on certain event weekends. 

HOW IS TECHNOLOGY OVERALL IMPACTING TRAVEL AND HOSPITALITY?

MINGES: During COVID, we got used to contactless payment. And so we’re all using that today to rent cars, to check into hotels, to purchase things, to view a menu. And pre COVID, we were terrified of that. We’re doing it  because we’ve learned to do it, and it’s more efficient. So we’re seeing that take place. We’re seeing efficiencies that are created by technology in front of the house and in the back of the house. But surprisingly, even with those efficiencies, when we look at  the hard numbers, we need more employees to date than we needed pre COVID. So those technologies are making us more efficient, better suited to deliver high-quality service, but they’re not necessarily reducing the demand for workers. So we’re using technology. It’s a good thing, but it’s not replacing the need for workers to  deliver quality customer service.

WERZ: The biggest thing we look at in destination marketing is artificial intelligence. There are certain things we can do with AI. As far as copywriting, you’re going to be able to do videos with AI. But is it going to replace my staffer? Probably not. So it’s something that we’re looking at on a daily basis, at least my colleague is. And I know the (Pinehurst) resort is looking at it as well, because they always want to be on the forefront of what’s going on in technology. And so AI has been a big, big topic for us. 

TUTTELL: A new platform comes along like TikTok. Suddenly it’s massive, and you need to be on it when you didn’t have a TikTok strategy a year ago. Things like Booking.com, those types of sites can come in and just change the game. And those changes are happening faster and faster than they did before.

WHEN I THINK ABOUT AI, I ENVISION BEING ABLE TO GO TO A WEBSITE OF MOUNT AIRY AND BEING ABLE TO VIRTUALLY WALK THROUGH IT AND SEE THE ANDY GRIFFITH STATUE. ARE Y’ALL DOING THINGS LIKE THAT?

WERZ: We’re launching a new website beginning in 2024, that will incorporate AI. So you’ll be able to go in and you’ll be able to ask questions, you will get responses back, you’ll be able to book your room. Everything will be able to be done online, in real time. I need to learn more about that myself. But I mean, it’s amazing the technology and the capabilities that are there. 

SCHMIDT: It actually gives more control to that meeting planner. So on our convention center website, anybody can go in and design their own setup now. They can go in and say, “I want my convention hall to look like this,” or “I want my meeting room to look like this.” So we give them an opportunity to design it. It saves us time on the back end because we’re not going through and making diagrams.

 LET’S GET BACK TO THE WORKFORCE ISSUE. WHERE ARE YOU GETTING YOUR WORKERS FROM? AND HOW ARE YOU RECRUITING THEM TO COME FOR THOSE JOBS? THAT SEEMS LIKE A MAJOR ISSUE FOR ALL OF YOU. 

SCHMIDT: One issue is education. So we’re going into high schools and other places, and educating these kids that are going to be in the workforce that maybe are not going to college, about careers in our industry. How do you become a  general manager at a hotel? And there’s a clear path, but these kids don’t know what that path is. And they also don’t know the kind of living you can make in a career like that. It’s a  good living. And then the other part is really working with parents and others to educate them about careers in the hospitality industry as well. So it’s really exposure in education. 

MEDLIN: We’ve been talking to our community college about this career path and how fast people move in this industry. And so we’re looking at not necessarily a two-year program, but some certificate programs where they go into the schools before they even graduate from high school and talk to them about this industry and offer a certificate and then going into the hotels and the restaurants. We’re kind of  excited about that. And then hopefully, there’ll be a two-year curriculum there soon that’ll lead  people into this industry. 

MEGHANN, ARE YOU DOING SIMILAR STUFF IN RICHMOND COUNTY?

LAMBETH: Richmond Community College is our local community college and they’re very much immersed into our community. And the high school has hired a teacher that is now just focused on career development. So there’s a new bond that’s growing, not too new, but it is developing. 

MINGES: Largely, we’re talking about not having enough workers to work in hotels and restaurants. During COVID, when we displaced half of our workforce, we went to the General Assembly and asked that they allocate some of the state’s portion from the American Rescue Plan to help our industry recover. And so the North Carolina Restaurant Lodging Association received a grant of $5 million to develop and execute a hospitality workforce recruitment campaign. It’s all centered around a website that is intended to introduce people to careers in the hospitality industry. It’s a centralized job portal that today lists about 20,000 restaurant and hotel jobs that are open and available in North Carolina. It allows people to search by location, or it will default to the location they are currently sitting in. And it will pull jobs from their area, they can search by the kind of job. This morning when I checked, there were over 5,000 jobs in our industry that pay close to $50,000 a year just in North Carolina.

The second thing we’re trying to do on that website is to really talk about the career opportunities because of some of the research we did in the industry. When you drill down and ask them in focus groups, “Why did you leave?” and they said “well, I just didn’t see a career pathway. I was  doing that. So I could earn a living to get through high school or to buy a car.” They saw that as a transactional sort of job. And so what we’ve tried to do on the website is interview over 100 employees who are currently working in our industry across the state. And they talk about their stories and what they like about the industry and they talk about their career path. 

LET’S SWITCH GEARS AND TALK ABOUT THE END PRODUCT. HOW ARE YOU GETTING MORE PEOPLE TO VISIT YOUR COMMUNITIES? IS THERE ANYTHING NEW OR INTERESTING YOU’RE DOING?

SCHMIDT: What we’ve done differently over the last year, is going away from traditional marketing avenues and spending where the streaming services are, whether it’s audio streaming, or television streaming. Less people have cable. People are watching thingslike Hulu. 

The other thing is seeing how your target market has changed. For us, we’re looking at more sustainable tourism opportunities for people. That’s what the research really shows that people are looking for. And also multigenerational travel is something that we’re seeing more of as well, whether it’s for leisure, travel, or even we’re seeing it for sports travel. I think it’s just looking at what is going on in your particular area and how you’re reaching your particular target market. 

MEDLIN: We sort of decided that we need new products on the I-95 corridor to bring new visitors in. We’re really excited to share that the legislature looked at developing rural tourism districts for rural areas in North Carolina. So we’re hopeful when they get back in session in May, that they’ll look at that seriously and put those areas in North Carolina so we can build new products. We’re also really excited about America’s 250th birthday, which is coming up in 2026. And it all started in Halifax, North Carolina. So the state is kicking off that celebration in April in Halifax with a two-year long celebration for our state and the nation. I think we’ll see some new visitors, some history travelers and people coming in because we have a lot of Revolutionary War history here in North Carolina. 

ROBERTS: Being in an area where I am with not great broadband and
Wi-Fi, we’ve added lots of new wayfinding and signage throughout our county, which has really helped drop people into the downtowns and to the hotels to destinations and that’s just a constant thing for rural areas, especially in the western part of the state.

WIT, TAKE A MORE STATEWIDE VIEW OF WHAT THE ISSUES ARE FOR TRAVEL AND TOURISM INSTEAD OF A COUNTY VIEW OR A REGIONAL VIEW.

TUTTELL: North Carolina is so diverse. It’s an incredible blessing. We run from the most undeveloped beaches in the eastern United States, the highest mountains in the eastern United States and incredibly fascinating communities in between. That’s great, but when you’re trying to get that into seven seconds, that’s an incredible challenge. You really have to balance things to showcase. We try to do things that are open to anyone in the state that anybody in the state can participate in and aren’t specific to the coast or specific to the mountains, or specific to the Piedmont.

DO YOU GET MOST OF YOUR VISITORS FROM IN THE STATE, OR DO THEY COME IN FROM OUT OF STATE? 

ROBERTS: We get a lot from the urban areas in North Carolina. We get a lot from Virginia, like the Roanoke area. And then Ohio was huge for us (with people from there) coming down on their way to Florida. We get them coming and going. So we’ve been targeting them to get them to come back and play on more vacations our way. So that’s a big, big destination for us. 

MEDLIN: I’m a little unusual in that department. I’m on the I-95 corridor. Yeah, we’re getting visitors from New York to Florida, a lot of visitors from the Northeast. So we advertise that way. We do a lot of billboard campaigns that way. The impact of that corridor and people coming back and forth all the way up and down the United States, coming in and out of our communities, is tremendous. Probably 70% of our visitors are traveling on that corridor, and they’re planning to stay with us on their way up and down. And then we try. And our goal is to try to get them to stay longer.

TUTTELL: Even though we have fantastic airports, we’re still a drive market for mostly domestic visitation. So it’s really those drive-in markets that are important. It’s usually about a 60-40 split. So 40% of the visitors are in-state visitors and 60% are out-of-state. But those out-of-state visitors, even though they don’t visit as often, they spend more and stay longer, so they have more impact.

WERZ: In Moore County, because we have Pinehurst, it’s unique because we have our marketing budget. Obviously Pinehurst resort has its marketing budget, too. So we’ll coordinate and say, “Hey, where are you spending your golf dollars? Where can we kind of fill in?” It’s great to have that flexibility where we can kind of lay it on the resort a little bit and then kind of do our own thing as well. 

WHEN I LIVED IN ATLANTA, SUGAR AND BEECH WERE THE ONLY PLACES I EVER WENT SKIING. AND I JUST KEPT GOING BACK. IF YOU HAVE A GOOD EXPERIENCE AT A PLACE, YOU JUST WANT TO KEEP REPEATING THAT GOOD EXPERIENCE. IS THAT WHAT YOU’RE ALL TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH?

LAMBETH: You find something, and you’re like, “This works. This is where now I can go.” We just got a new digital sign that is enormous. I don’t recall the exact number of measurements, but it’s in front of the dragway, which is across from the former NASCAR track which can be a NASCAR track again. But it has been such a wonderful marketing tool, because there’s so much traffic coming in from Raleigh and other places. 

WHERE DO YOU SEE TRAVEL AND TOURISM CHANGING IN THE NEXT FIVE YEARS? WHAT CAN YOU DO TO KEEP GROWING?

ROBERTS: We’ve seen tremendous growth with our wine region being the Yadkin Valley wine region. And we are  working tremendously with our partners in Wilkes County and Yadkin County and collaborating with them to spread our advertising out. So I see that growing still. We’ve also expanded our food trails. Of course, Mayberry is still our biggest hook, and will continue to be very important to our tourism. We’re a big wedding destination as well. We have a lot of wedding barns, a lot of higher end restaurants that have come around since I’ve been there.

WERZ: Moore County is already a globally recognized destination. So people are already coming from around the world. There are so many Department of Transportation projects that have been put on hold that the day after the US Open in 2024, it will be the highest  concentration of highway projects in the state with 12 different projects going on. So by the 2029 US Open, it is going to be a completely different destination, every road in and out of there is going to be five lanes and much easier to get into and out of that area. 

LAMBETH: I think (we have) the spillover from that growth, which we already have a lot of, coupled with the growth of our established things that are already bringing so many people from racing to a motocross track in Ellerbe, that you would never know that it’s even there because it’s in the woods. So I think just the growth of those things, which is another continuation of COVID. People got really into their sport, especially if it happened to be something that was conducive to doing during that time period, they got even more engaged in it. I didn’t want to keep going off to all my random stories. We did have an Andre the Giant festival for the first time this year. 

HOLD ON. ANDRE THE GIANT? THE FAMOUS WRESTLER?

LAMBETH: The guy who is the chair of the museum board called me maybe in April and told me about it. So the consensus was, well let’s have a festival. So I got really nervous. It was just three of us planning this event. And the day before the festival, I’m getting all these texts. Here’s one (feature) in Sports Illustrated. It was all these national things. And I was like, “This is really good. It was a wonderful day.” 

YOU NEED AN ANDRE THE GIANT IMPERSONATOR ENTERED INTO A DRAG RACE. 

LAMBETH: Crazy. Awesome. OK. 

TUTTELL: Our goal would be to see North Carolina be a year-round destination. That’s the best travel  destination in the South. And I say that because we don’t include Florida in the South because it’s not really southern. And I think we have an opportunity to grow in a smart way. And a lot of  other states haven’t done that. And I think we have the foresight and the people that care enough to see that we grow it to be the biggest destination in the South in the right way.

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